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In a state where poverty affects tens of thousands of children and education falls to the bottom of national rankings, community leaders know they have to do what they can to improve opportunities for kids across Mississippi.

Research shows that early childhood education is one way to increase a child’s chances for success in their later years, but there’s no statewide program for 3- and 4-year-olds in Mississippi.

“When children get to first-grade, they’re on so many different levels, it’s an obvious problem in this state,” said Joyce Helmick, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators. “Learning in an early stage can prevent so much of the students being behind, it can get them where they need to be.”

Mississippi early childhood
Spencer’s Kiddieland in Indianola, Miss., where nearly 50 percent of children under five live in poverty. (Photo: Kim Palmer)

In 2013, Mississippi became the last Southern state to jump on the early childhood education bandwagon, allocating about $3 million worth of grants to pre-k programs across the state. But that money was given to only 11 pre-k programs, and many 3- and 4-year-olds across Mississippi still risk entering kindergarten unprepared.

But throughout the Magnolia State, privately-funded pre-k programs are popping up to ensure that children have a head start when they enter kindergarten.

Betterment of city

In 2009, Gulfport community and business leaders wanted to do something for the betterment of their city, and they landed on early childhood education as their best option.

The crew looked at what other Southern states were doing to better prepare children for kindergarten and concluded that there was no time to waste on waiting for state funding — they had to act immediately on their own.

“We were starting with youngsters who drop out in junior high, and we were dealing with the ones getting in trouble with the law,” said then-Mayor George Schloegel. “But if we don’t start with 3- and 4-year-olds, we’ll always be playing catch up. That’s the theory behind getting to a youngster early.”

Mississippi early childhood
A child at Spencer’s Kiddieland in Indianola, Miss. plays with a toy. Experts say high quality early childhood classes better prepare children for school. (Photo: Kim Palmer)

Thus a pilot program, the South Mississippi PreK4Ward Initiative, was born. Today, the program has expanded from Gulfport to Harrison and Hancock counties, serving nearly 100 4-year-olds at no cost to parents.

“When we start the year I tell (the parents) ‘hold your hands out, I’m giving you $5,400 because that’s the average of a high quality child care center in this state for nine months,’” said Cindy Minton-Walker, executive director of the program. “We get no public funding, it’s all private corporations, individuals and a couple of foundations.”

“We just weren’t willing to wait for the state here on the Coast, and the business community said ‘let’s not wait any longer,” Minton-Walker said.

There’s no income requirement for PreK4Ward students, and the classes are filled on a first-come, first-served basis.

“In a state like ours with so much poverty, if we don’t give educators five good years to turn these kids around, then we aren’t being fair to them by saying ‘in the third-grade you have to be reading on grade level.”

Building miniature adults

At the Southern Miss Center for Child Development in Pass Christian, infants to children aged 4 start off learning through play to get ready for school.

“You can’t overteach a child,” said Rose Jenkins, director of the program. “Exposure is the key to early childhood education. We’re able to provide the equipment and experiences that a stay-at-home mom could not and the socialization they need.”

Jenkins said the goal at their center is to have children ready to start learning to read on their first day of school.

“We’re not teaching them alegbra or statistics, but we are exposing them to materials that they wouldn’t have from a babysitter at home,” she said.

At the Southern Miss center, students pay tuition for their early learning experience.

“We’re helping them develop so they’re ready for school,” said Melissa Weaver, a teacher at the center. “Children learn so much more when they’re having fun, and we’re just using parts of the brain that might not have been kickstarted at home.”

Weaver said she incorporates songs and hands-on activities in her classroom.

“We’re building little miniature adults,” she said. “It’s far more than just academics, it’s the engagement. It’s having fun while doing hands-on work.”

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